Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is an impressive, engrossing piece of film-making from director/screenwriter Frank Darabont who adapted horror master Stephen King's 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (first published in Different Seasons) for his first feature film. The inspirational, life-affirming and uplifting, old-fashioned style Hollywood product (resembling The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and Cool Hand Luke (1967)) is a combination prison/dramatic film and character study.

The popular film is abetted by the golden cinematography of Roger Deakins, a touching score by Thomas Newman, and a third imposing character - Maine's oppressive Shawshank State Prison (actually the transformed, condemned Mansfield Ohio Correctional Institution or State Reformatory).

Posters for the film illustrate the liberating, redemptive power of hope and the religious themes of freedom and resurrection, with the words:

"Fear can hold you prisoner, Hope can set you free."

Darabont's film is a patiently-told, allegorical tale (unfolding like a long-played, sometimes painstaking, persistent chess game) of friendship, patience, hope, survival, emancipation, and ultimate redemption and salvation by the time of the film's finale.

It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound - but it failed to win a single Oscar. And the film's director failed to receive a nomination for himself! In the same year as Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and Speed, they received all of the attention.

Only through positive word-of-mouth (following cable TV and broadcast airings, and then video releases) did the film do well - although its original reception at the box-office was lukewarm. The film was the precursor for another inspirational and popular film (and a similar adaptation of a Stephen King story by writer/director Frank Darabont) - The Green Mile (1999).

Plot Synopsis

In the prologue before the film begins and pre-title credits play, a scratchy car radio (on the soundtrack) plays the romantic song: "If I Didn't Care," performed by the Inkspots:

If I didn't care, more than words can say,
If I didn't care, would I feel this way,
If this isn't love, then why do I thrill
And what makes my head go round and round
While my heart stands still...

To economically compress events during the credits sequence, a scene outside a cabin is intercut with a courtroom trial scene. [The year is 1946.] A Plymouth is parked outside a cabin [belonging to a golf pro engaged in an affair with an adulterous wife]. During a dark, quiet night in the wooded area near the cabin, the driver (the woman's husband) reaches for his oily, rag-wrapped gun in the glove compartment where bullets are also concealed. To fortify himself, he takes a swig of Rosewood bourbon from a glass bottle held in his lap. In the courtroom, the driver is identified as Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins). He is interrogated by the D.A. (Jeffrey DeMunn) and charged with murder: "Mr. Dufresne, describe the confrontation you had with your wife the night that she was murdered." The well-dressed, mild-mannered defendant calmly speaks: "It was very bitter. She said she was glad I knew, that she hated all the sneaking around. She said she wanted a divorce in Reno...I told her I would not grant one." The D.A. rephrases Andy's response with his actual words:

'I'll see you in Hell before I see you in Reno.' Those were the words you used, Mr. Dufresne, according to the testimony of your neighbors.

Obviously, Andy's wife (Renee Blaine) was having an affair with Glenn Quentin (Scott Mann), the golf pro at the Snowdon Hills Country Club. According to Andy, he felt confused and drunk, loaded his gun with bullets and intended to commit the crime, but then after quickly "sobering up," he had second thoughts. On his way home, according to his testimony, he discarded his gun: "...I stopped and I threw my gun into the Royal River."

The next morning, the bullet-riddled bodies of Andy's wife and her lover - in bed - were discovered. Andy's "very convenient" (acc. to the DA) testimony and unbelievable profession of innocence, coupled with the fact that "the police dragged that river for three days and nary a gun was found," seem rather suspicious to the D.A. The water washed away all evidence of his alleged innocence.

The D.A.'s closing summary to the jury, illustrated with a brief flashback-montage of the adulterous couple's passionate lovemaking (and obvious 'sin'), also points to Andy's undeniable guilt [it looks quite likely that Andy is guilty of the crime, although he has trouble remembering]:

We have the accused at the scene of the crime. We have footprints, tire tracks. We have bullets strewn on the ground which bear his fingerprints. A broken bourbon bottle, likewise with fingerprints. And most of all, we have a beautiful young woman and her lover lying dead in each other's arms. They had sinned. But was their crime so great as to merit a death sentence?...A revolver holds six bullets, not eight. I submit that this was not a hot-blooded crime of passion. That, at least, could be understood if not condoned. No - this was revenge of a much more brutal and cold blooded nature. Consider this. Four bullets per victim. Not six shots fired but eight. That means that he fired the gun empty and then stopped to reload so that he could shoot each of them again. An extra bullet per lover, right in the head.

The "icy and remorseless" man is sentenced by the Maine judge (John Horton) to "serve two life sentences back to back - one for each of your victims." The gavel marking the sentence pounds the screen to black.

The next scene, another scene of judgment, commences with noisy, iron bars sliding open, and another door opening into a room where five men sit at a table. An unexpected scene, this is the parole hearings room of maximum-security Shawshank Prison, where a black prisoner/lifer (#30265) named Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman) - the real hero of the story, after serving twenty years of his sentence, receives his cursory annual review [in the year 1947].

[Note: The entire film is basically told from Red's perspective, and much of the film is centered around the theme of observation, perception and seeing - especially Red's observation of the other main protagonist, Andy Dufresne.]

Red religiously vows his rehabilitation has been accomplished - and swears - "that's the God's honest truth":

Reviewer: You feel you've been rehabilitated?
Red: Oh, yes sir. Absolutely, sir. Yeah, I've learned my lesson. I can honestly say that I'm a changed man. I'm no longer a danger to society. That's the God's honest truth.

A mechanical stamp marks "REJECTED" in red ink on his parole records. [Note: The picture in his parole document is that of Morgan Freeman's own son, Alfonso.] In the prison's exercise yard following the "same ol' s--t" review, Red begins his ubiquitous voice-over narration (of his recollections) - a world-weary, resonant voice-over that continues for the remainder of the film. He is the prison's respected retriever - who sneakily passes contraband from hand to hand:

There must be a con like me in every prison in America. I'm the guy who can get it for you. Cigarettes, a bag of reefer if that's your thing, a bottle of brandy to celebrate your kid's high school graduation, damn near anything within reason. Yes sir, I'm a regular Sears and Roebuck.

Prison sirens blast as a ritualistic prison event is heralded - the arrival of fresh, new prisoners (termed "fresh fish") in a drab-gray school bus. Red recollects back: "So when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked me to smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I told him - 'No problem.'" A well-orchestrated, helicopter/aerial shot, one of the most acclaimed shots in the film, moves up from the arriving bus, ascends the main tower of the gothic prison, and peers down into the prison courtyard where ant-like prisoners scurry toward the fenced-in arrival area to gawk, size up, and jeer the new arrivals during their disembarkment:

Andy came to Shawshank Prison in early 1947 for murdering his wife and the fella she was bangin'. On the outside, he'd been vice-president of a large Portland bank. Good work for a man as young as he was.

Andy, dressed conspicuously in his banker's suit, is seated in the back of the bus. As the bus turns the corner into the prison, there are five blue-uniformed guards waiting there - the chief captain of the guard, Byron Hadley (Clancy Brown) motions the bus into position. Chained together, the prisoners exit from the bus, walk in single-file, and are lined up for inspection. Andy appears tormented and terrified as he nervously walks into his new surroundings while surrounded by shouting, taunting spectators who shake the fence. The old-timer inmates bet "smokes" on the new 'horses' and who will break first - Floyd (Brian Libby) bets on "that little sack of s--t...eighth from the front, he'll be first." Heywood (Bill Sadler) chooses "that chubby fat-ass there, the fifth one from the front." Red votes for the fragile-looking Andy ("that tall drink of water with a silver spoon up his ass" - a veiled reference to Andy's upcoming rape) at the end of the line:

I must admit, I didn't think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him. Looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. That was my first impression of the man.

Andy glances up at the imposing walls above him - walls that will close in on his life during two consecutive life sentences - as he is marched in. In an admitting area, the prisoners meet Mr. Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton), the self-righteous, Bible-carrying Warden:

You are convicted felons. That's why they sent you to me. Rule Number One: No blasphemy. I'll not have the Lord's name taken in vain in my prison. The other rules you'll figure out as you go along.

Hadley cusses right into the face of a disrespectful prisoner who has asked: "When do we eat?" The guard inhumanely jabs his baton into the gut of the man ("you maggot-dick motherf--ker!"). The Warden finishes his short, pompous introduction - with another reference to anal rape!:

I believe in two things - discipline and the Bible. Here you'll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank.

To remove all vestiges of their identity (or contamination) from the outer world, the new cons are made to undress, then hosed down in a steel cage with high pressure water spray, and deloused with scoops of white delousing powder. As part of their degrading processing, they are given prison clothes and a Bible, and marched exposed and naked to their individual cells, their new homes in the cellblock - a three-tiered structure of concrete and steel.

The first night's the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing s--t they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell, when those bars slam home, that's when you know it's for real. Old life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it. Most new fish come close to madness the first night. Somebody always breaks down crying. Happens every time. The only question is, who's it gonna be? It's as good a thing to bet on as any, I guess. I had my money on Andy Dufresne. I remember my first night. Seems like a long time ago.

As part of their entertaining betting game, the inmates taunt and 'bait' the "fishees" or first-timers - and "they don't quit till they reel someone in." The one nicknamed 'Fat-Ass' (Frank Medrano) is mercilessly teased by a leering Heywood: "This place ain't so bad. Tell ya what. I'll introduce ya around. Make you feel right at home. I know a couple of big ol' bull queers that'd just love to make your acquaintance, especially that big white mushy butt of yours." When the squeamish, hyperventilating victim wails and pleads despairingly: "Oh God! I don't belong here! I wanna go home," the prisoners chant: "Fresh fish!" The oppressed 'Fat-Ass' blubbers his unheard complaints to Hadley and is beaten with an unceasing rain of baton blows and kicked in the face until he lies still on the cold floor. The captain of the guard commands his lackeys: "Call the trustees. Take that tub of s--t down to the infirmary." Red loses his cigarette bet to Heywood:

His first night in the joint, Andy Dufresne cost me two packs of cigarettes. He never made a sound.

The next morning after a head-count in front of their individual cells in the cellblock, the prisoners are marched to the mess hall for breakfast. As Andy moves through the room, one of the 'bull queer' inmates named Bogs Diamond (Mark Rolston) gives him a salacious glance. As he begins eating a scoop of oatmeal on his metal tray, Andy picks out a squirming white maggot with his fingers. A neighboring, elderly inmate Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) inquires: "Are-are you going to eat that?" With everyone expecting that Brooks will eat the wiggling creature, he instead offers the "nice and ripe" maggot to a baby crow (named Jake) nestled in the inside pocket of his droopy blue sweater - he is its caretaker (in its prison cage) until it matures and flies away to freedom: "Fell out of his nest over by the plate shop. I'm gonna look after him until he's big enough to fly." [Brooks with his pet crow brings to mind the film: The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).]

Heywood gleefully gloats about winning the bet and collects cigarettes as payment from everyone: "I want 'em all lined up just like a pretty little chorus line." But his victory is won with a deadly toll and price for 'Fat-Ass' - "Dead. Hadley busted his head up pretty good. Doc had already gone home for the night. Poor bastard laid there till this morning. By then, hell, there was nothing we could do."

In the communal shower room, Bogs - one of the prison's notorious Sisters (the prison's resident rapists), expresses a liking for Andy and asks him a leading question:

Hey, anybody come at you yet? Anybody get to you yet? Hey, we all need friends in here. I could be a friend to you. (Andy breaks away without responding) Hey, hard to get. I like that.

Andy's assigned job is to work in the prison laundry room, where he "kept pretty much to himself at first. I guess he had a lot on his mind, trying to adapt to life on the inside. It wasn't until a month went by that he finally opened his mouth to say more than two words to somebody." While Red plays catch in the prison yard, Andy (joking that he's "the wife-killing banker") ambles over to break the month-long silence:

Red: Why'd you do it?
Andy: I didn't, since you ask.
Red: (chuckling) You're gonna fit right in. Everybody in (here) is innocent. Didn't you know that?...Rumor has it you're a real cold fish. You think your s--t smells sweeter than most. Is that right?
Andy: What do you think?
Red: I'll tell ya the truth. I haven't made up my mind.

Having learned that Red "knows how to get things," Andy officially meets Red when he makes a simple request for a rock-hammer - to resume his geologic "rock-hound" hobby from his "old life," although Red questions whether the tool will be used instead for self-protection against Bogs or for tunneling out of the prison:

Red: I'm known to locate certain things from time to time.
Andy: I wonder if you might get me a rock-hammer.
Red: ...What is it and why?
Andy: What do you care?
Red: What if it was a toothbrush? I wouldn't ask questions. I'd just quote a price. But then, a toothbrush is a non-lethal object, isn't it?
Andy: Fair enough. A rock-hammer is about six or seven inches long. Looks like a miniature pick-axe.
Red: Pick-axe?
Andy: For rocks.
Red: Rocks. (Andy flips him a sample rock) Quartz?
Andy: (squatting down and inspecting the ground) Quartz. Here's some mica, shale, limestone.
Red: So?
Andy: So I'm a rock-hound. At least I was, in my old life. I'd like to be again, on a limited basis.
Red: Or maybe you'd like to sink your toy into somebody's skull.
Andy: No, sir. I have no enemies here.
Red: No? Wait a while. Word gets around. The Sisters have taken quite a likin' to you, especially Bogs. (Bogs watches Andy from afar)
Andy: I don't suppose it would help any if I explained to them I'm not homosexual.
Red: Neither are they. You have to be human first. They don't qualify. Bull queers take by force. That's all they want or understand. If I were you, I'd grow eyes in the back of my head.
Andy: Thanks for the advice.
Red: That's free. You understand my concern.
Andy: Well, if there's any trouble, I won't use the rock-hammer. OK?
Red: Then I guess you wanna escape. Tunnel under the wall, maybe? (Andy laughs, when Red unintentionally guesses his real motive) Did I miss something here? What's funny?
Andy: You'll understand when you see the rock-hammer.

They decide on a price of $10 (which includes Red's normal mark-up percentage of twenty percent) for the "specialty item," and Andy assures Red that if he is caught with it during a surprise inspection, he won't mention his procurer's name. Red explains the rules of his business ("You mention my name, we'll never do business again, not for shoelaces or a stick of gum") and the origin of his nickname 'Red': "Maybe it's because I'm Irish." [This is a deliberate gag - delivered to the film audience! After African-American Morgan Freeman was cast to play the role of a white Irishman, this line was written to 'explain' Red's origins.] As Andy strolls away, Red remarks on his carefree, shielded attitude (with an "invisible coat" or Christ-like halo), while admitting his own growing affection for Andy:

I could see why some of the boys took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn't normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world. Like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say I liked Andy from the start.

Andy's request is smuggled into the prison through a load of laundry at the loading dock, passed to Red in his new stack of clean sheets and blankets, and then distributed to Andy through Brooks, the prison librarian delivering books to each cell. Red is convinced that the rock-hammer would be useless in tunneling out: "It would take a man about six hundred years to tunnel under the wall with one of these." In the prison laundry room during a typical day, Andy is summoned to fetch some hexlite from the stock area. There in the stockroom, he is assaulted by Bogs Diamond and two other predatory men (the Sisters) who taunt him and beat him senseless: "That's it. You fight. It's better that way." According to Red, "prison is no fairy-tale world" and the vulnerable newcomer is repeatedly subjugated and victimized (and gang-raped?) during his first two years - dramatized in a short montage:

Things went on like that for a while. Prison life consists of routine, and then more routine. Every so often, Andy would show up with fresh bruises. The Sisters kept at him. Sometimes he was able to fight 'em off, sometimes not. And that's how it went for Andy. That was his routine.

Next Page